“Say no to Grandma!” How to stop your toddler becoming a junk food junkie

Grandma's pushing lollies on a toddler

When I was a kid in the mid ’80s, Nancy Reagan had a “Just Say No” advertising campaign that was aimed at the US public but also weirdly international. It convinced me that the path to drug addiction worked like this:

  • A drug dealer would offer me free drugs.
  • I would become immediately addicted (and uncool!).
  • I would become a homeless VCR thief.
  • The ‘pusher’ would grow fat off burgled VCRs.
  • Rap music was dangerous.

“Just Say No” was dumb. But up until the VCR-thieving stage, if you substitute “junk food” for “drugs”, it is a scarily close to my kid’s pathway to junk food love. Only the dealer wasn’t one of Nancy’s boom-box shouldering Crips. It was my mum. Sid’s gran! She’s not even a low-level Blood! Her boom-box plays Smooth FM. And it’s not a boom box, it’s the CD player in her Corolla.

But grandma is a pusher, all laden with lamingtons and chips and Iced VoVos. And she knows the hustle.

Don’t hate the player, hate the game

Raising children is hard. Raising children with a healthy and varied palate is even harder, because toddlers are fussy. All kids become fixated on favourites or go through phases of rejecting stuff they’ve previously enjoyed.

This is infuriating. Yesterday they were hoovering spaghetti bolognaise so furiously that it’s still in their ears. Today they slap it away if it’s put in front of them. And it’s THE EXACT SAME MEAL, YOU LITTLE…. This from a kid who’ll mouth a gobful of poop if they get an arm loose during a nappy change.

Kids: can’t feed ’em, can’t feed ’em to the homeless. But you’re not alone.

As reported in the Sydney Morning Herald, “more than 90% of children aged nine months and 18 months are eating junk food regularly”, and “at 18 months, more than 95% of children are not eating enough vegetables”.

The study published in the Journal of Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, which involved 467 Aussie kids between 2008 and 2015, is the first to compare the eating habits of very young children with the national guidelines.

It’s hard enough without enemy agents

Our experience was, I think, reasonably typical of parents who are concerned about this. Sid’s mum and I decided early to keep him away from anything too sugary or fatty. No juice, no cakes, no Roll-Ups, no chocolate or lollies.

In the beginning, this is easy. The kid goes from milk to pureed carrots to baby food that’s either laboriously homemade, or squeezed from one of those daft plastic tubes that’s reasonably nutritious but probably definitely chokes sea turtles.

In time, Sid became addicted to several things, but mostly bananas. Also toast (wholegrain; we’d scrape the Vegemite on lightly because it’s saltier than Lot’s wife after a jog). My wife’s a vegetarian, so Sid became used to farty, legume-based concoctions, although I’d occasionally slip him a sausage, a phrase I recommend not using around DOCS.

We’d go out of our way to try to vary his meals, sometimes successfully. Finely chopped veg in the spag bol. Sometimes we’d return to toast as a last resort. There was some shouting. Mostly we got there.

So far so good.

In their second year, it gets harder

Even nine months in, study lead author Dr Alison Spence, from the Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition at Deakin University, said your child can get by on as little as 30g of vegies a day. But once they turn one, that leaps to a minimum of 150g!

“In the first year the guidelines are really encouraging children to try new foods and textures,” Dr Spence told SMH. “By that second year of life they are getting almost all of their nutrition from food, so the fruit and vegetable recommendation jumps up quite a lot.

“There’s really no room for junk food.”

Unfortunately, this timing often coincides with mum going back to work, meaning the temptation to grab something sugary to shut them up on the fly ramps up. But even if you’ve accustomed them to healthy snacks, and manage always to have them on hand, outside influences can scupper your plans.

“Hi dad! I love chippies!”

This was the sort of MMS annotation I’d get from Sid’s gran, my mum, while I was at work and she was minding the boy. My reaction was twofold: relief that there were no tradies in the pics, then swearing anyway.

My mum watches Sid a couple of days a week (childcare in my hood is $167 a day). Sid loves his gran. I loved mine, too. My grandma and I made cakes, but I mostly liked the ritual: batter, mixer, cupcakes rising. I’ve never really had a sweet tooth. I used to get a toy at Easter instead of chocolate.

Yet when I’m at work, Sid’s gran would do anything that made him happy. And so she was always experimenting in buying him shit food. Which he’d devour, while she delightedly took his photo.

War? What is it good for?

Look, I actually think it’s a grandparent’s prerogative to feed kids shitty food. As far as I’m concerned, Mum raised me, on her own, and that hell earned her the right to fuck with our Sid’s diet if she wants. Best-laid plans, etc. She fed me well, after all. I like that he’s delighted to see her, and I don’t mind Grandma being associated with treats. But only to a point.

We’d stopped him from developing a taste for junk by never having it in the house, being always supplied with stuff he’d eat, even if it was just hummus or fruit or natural yoghurt. Or as a last resort, toast.

Grandma had no chill. Or not enough.

So we had ‘the talk’. Grandma swears she doesn’t feed him (as much) junk anymore, and mostly I believe her. He can have, say, chips if we go out, which is not often. But at home, he gets his staples, in his chair, which is at the family table and usually reflects what the family eats. It gets easier. Kids like rules. Grandmas … can deal with them.

We try not to make it a battleground. Fight on as few fronts as possible. Wars don’t work — on drugs, on toddlers, or the elderly. So we do endure the odd tantrum. And he’s gone to bed without dinner a few times. Raising a kid is hard. But you’ve gotta hold the line.

Just say ‘no’.

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